People learn things informally from others every day. They may watch a cooking show to learn preparation of a new dish, or watch an athlete to learn how to better perform in their sport, or they may even watch a colleague execute a task at work to improve their performance. This peer training can be a very powerful learning method because inherent trust is placed in the other person without the fear of authority. People learn from teachers at school because they must, but they often learn from peers because they want to.
I had an interesting experience today at work that really drove this lesson home. Our office has a whole row of cottonwood trees right next to the parking lot, and every spring they drop pods filled with sap onto our vehicles. This sap sticks to our cars even through a high-pressure car wash. Randomly, one of my staff suggested using a dryer sheet. This sounded ridiculous at first, but she convinced me to go down and try one on my truck. It worked like a charm and pulled the sap off the paint almost immediately. As she demonstrated it, more staff gathered around to see it work; anxious to learn how to remove sap from their cars as well. In the span of a minute we had a mini-training session in the parking lot focused on how to remove sap. This solved a problem many of us have had for years.
Why is peer training so effective?
- Perception – Often there is no pressure to learn, only desire, and so the learning environment is low risk and high engagement.
- Anonymity – It is much easier to ask a friend or colleague to show you something, then to ask the boss. Peer training creates a space where ignorance can be freely admitted and improved upon.
- Intimate – Peer training is often a one-on-one event. There isn’t a classroom full of people overshadowing the learner’s ability to ask questions.
- Customized – because there is only one learner the training will naturally be customized to meet their exact needs. Each question will be addressed and informal assessments will occur constantly.
- Change – no one prefers to learn from the same instructor every time. Peer training involves people in becoming new instructors and provides variety to the learners. This increases engagement in the material and increases accountability to learn.
- Value – peer training is a very low-cost and a very high return on investment.
The trick is to keep peer training informal. I’m not saying don’t set times to meet, or don’t apply solid education principles to the training. Just remember that the more formal training is, the more training becomes bound up in process instead of content. There is certainly a place for formal one-on-one training, but that is mentorship and carries with it all the potential negatives of a teacher/student relationship.